The many sides of Muscat, Oman

Oof!  I just don’t know where the time has gone – November flew by in a blur of work and activities and it’s been hard to a quiet moment to reflect and write down thoughts about our time here. The irony of course being that the more full and interesting our life, the more I have to write about and yet there is no time to do so!

I’m including my long over-due account about our October trip to Oman below complete with many pictures of that beautiful place. It’s fitting that I’m sending it out now on the eve of our next trip outside of Pakistan – we’re heading to Bangkok this evening for Christmas!


 

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Some airports could be anywhere in the world. Duty free shopping, nondescript restaurants, overpriced water, rows of uncomfortable seats ahead of uncomfortable flights. Others are full of the personality of exactly where they are. Islamabad Airport is the latter. As the main international airport in the country, travelers from all over mill around the arrivals area, as our driver lets us out. It’s 6am, but it’s busy. Many international flights to and from Pakistan arrive and leave in the early hours of the morning due to the time difference of being caught between the East and West.

We are cut off from most of the country in Islamabad, but at the airport we see Pakistan’s diversity on display. People wear a variety of clothes from traditional to modern, tribal hats and vests over shalwar kameez. There are fewer women than men traveling, and they range from fully covered to heads bare, suit-wearing. One woman ahead of us in the check-in line wears a vibrant blue, floor-length dress, her head is tightly covered in a black scarf leaving only her face and tight black curls along her forehead; her eyes are heavily kohled; she looks regal. Three women wearing what appear to just be lengths of un-stitched fabric patterned with cheerful, cartoon shapes, pass by.

As much as I try not to stare, I likely fail, but then, I receive many stares back.  In the women-only security line, a lady who’s face is all wrinkles unabashedly looks me up and down twice, meeting my eyes with a hard look that manages to be inquisitive and entirely uninterested. I’m not really part of her calculus. As I wait to go through the metal detector, I have to resist the urge to back away from the line- three women thronging around me well within my personal space bubble. After I receive a quick pat-down behind a privacy curtain, the female security guard leans in and says, “Stay blessed,” as she moves the curtain aside. No hashtag.

Most of the people on our flight to Muscat, Oman appear to be male laborers. At boarding, we are divided up into “families” and everyone else- a long line of male workers in plain shalwar kameez, some with their traditional hats, most wearing thick, leather sandals. Once I take my seat, I pull out my book and get lost for a while. I look up with the sensation that someone is staring at me again. I look into the pale eyes of a little boy, probably from the Northern areas of Pakistan, his skin light and his hair fair. He stares from my face to my book, tiny English words probably squiggly lines across the page to him. He gets shy and moves behind his dad, “Hello!” we say back and forth with a smile. We are all so curious about each other.

Muscat Airport is modern, glittering, beautifully crafted. There is mood lighting in immigration and chairs sculpted to mirror the mountains around the capital. For once, we take our bags carry-on only, so head straight to the rental car pick-up. The car is up on the top floor of a tall parking garage and we walk back and forth in the scorching sun as Dollar employees try to locate the silver Toyota Yaris we’ll be driving over the long weekend. The air is the baking heat of the desert combined with the heavy humidity of wet ocean air caught between the shore and the mountains. I feel slightly light-headed and we crank up the air conditioning once we’re finally in the car.

Throughout the trip I repeat over and over again how thankful I am that we rented a car. Muscat is unlike any city I’ve ever been to, but it’s reliance on roads to get anywhere and the aggression of its drivers distinctly remind me of LA. One night, we make the mistake of trying to walk to dinner and after half an hour of struggling along giant roads without crosswalks, discover that Google has the address wrong. Defeated, we return back to the hotel and get the car.

After the restrictions of our life in Islamabad, Oman overwhelms me with the variety of different things to do and places we can go – shopping, historic sites, museums, beaches, resorts, good food, mosques, hiking, natural parks, long open drives through mountains and off into the desert. For our first afternoon, we simply head to the coast and eat delicious fresh fish at a Turkish restaurant, The Twins, overlooking the sea.

Better rested and having formed a plan, the next morning we head out to explore Mutrah Souk. A famous market next to Oman’s big port that has all kinds of touristy trinkets along with actual antiques. We walk along the harbor and marvel at the Sultan’s two huge yachts that dwarf all the other boats.

The sun outside is blisteringly hot and we are thankful to escape into the cool, darkened allies of the market. Heady incense wafts from stall to stall, as we wander through a maze of little shops, vendors calling out “best price” and “high quality” at us. Ironically, many of the vendors are South Asian and Pakistani pashminas are in abundance. The 3-1 exchange rate of Omani rials to U.S. dollars keeps us a bit in check, but I still buy a few souvenirs including a pair of silver earrings with tear drop green stones that gleam after the vendor polishes them back to life.

We head to a late lunch with our friends and enjoy cuddles with their now almost one-year old. I can’t help feeling a pain of jealousy that they get to live in this beautiful city… we ponder if we’d serve here. Yes, I think we would. International meet-ups like these always have a faintly surreal quality. How did we all get here? Where will we meet next?After getting their recommendations, we head further out along the coast and spend a couple hours enjoying a secluded beach at the Capital Area Yacht Club. We stay until the sun is turning golden and make our way back as the sunset turns the rocks and cliffs along the freeway a deep red-orange.

The next day we try to rouse ourselves early as today’s plan is to drive out to explore some of Muscat’s natural beauty. Thankful once again that we have the freedom of our own car, we drive up a windy road into the mountains overlooking the city. Larger SUVs and trucks pass our tiny Yaris, whose little engine strains noisily against the incline.

The desert is a dream in browns, grays, faded greens, and occasional earthy reds and oranges. At the wheel, I experience a wonderful sense of freedom that feels like a weight being lifted from my shoulders. To roam without boundaries. With few other cars on the road, it feels like we’re in a car commercial.

After an hour and a bit, we make our way off the freeway and drive along less formed roads along the coast. Goats and camels look up lazily to stare at us as we pass by. Finally, after getting a bit lost and being waved along by a friendly man, we arrive at our first stop- the Bimmah Sinkhole.

From a distance, all we can see is a ringed wall as we walk through a well-cultivated and organized park. The sea crashes against the coast on our left; rocky hills rise up on the edge of more desert on our right. Then, at the wall the land drops sharply down into a hole, blue-green water in the center reflecting the sunlight back up to us and darker blue water underneath the caves that ring the hole looking cool and peaceful.

We take the steep steps down and spend an hour swimming in the cool, fresh water. Tiny fish nibbling at our feet whenever we stop moving.

Just as we’re starting to leave, a local man- part of a group in wet suits who have been diving down into the water to clean it of trash and lost tourist items- clambers along the upper wall and readies himself to jump into the pool below from a height of about 20 meters. We watch, both nervous and exhilarated, as he jumps outward and plunges down into the navy depths. A tense period of what feels like minutes, but is really just seconds, and he emerges, taking in a loud gasp of air.

We picnic in the park above, eating sandwiches we constructed from items at our hotel breakfast buffet and then snuck out in our bags. Why do floppy, squishy sandwiches, warm from being carried in a bag, always taste so heavenly after a long hike or a swim? Childhood memories of outings and similar picnics in faraway places come to my mind.

Full and happy, we head off in the car again for a short drive to Wadi Shab. Oman is riddled with these half-dried up river beds that fill with the rains and slow to a dribble in the hot summer months.

We reach the trail head via a short $1 boat ride and then hike up through incredible scenery towards promised swimming areas and caves. It’s a moderate hike up, and we are thankful we brought plenty of water and good shoes. Once we reach the river though, I painfully regret not bringing water shoes, the round river stones an impromptu reflexology path on my soft, bare feet.

Despite moving at a good pace, we are amazed at how the time flies and head back down the wadi at a fast clip to catch one of the last boats back to our car. A buys spicy potato chips and chilled water from a little stall, which we wolf down as we start the drive back to the city.

Though tired from the day before, we opt for another early morning the next day so we don’t miss the morning visiting hours of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. At 9:30am, the sun is already brutally hot, especially as it reflects off the mosque’s marble and gives everything a searing brightness. I feel particularly overheated under my headscarf, a requirement for visiting religious sites. I envy A’s bare, close-cropped hair, though he also wears long pants and sleeves.

The mosque is worth all the fatigue and heat. Its elegant and over-sized beauty stunning at every turn.

Inside the main building, we sink our bare feet into the lush, hand-woven carpet, apparently the second largest single-piece carpet in the world only after the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE. We marvel at the huge chandelier hanging directly above the center of the carpet in perfect symmetry. We find ourselves drawn to notice every tiny detail of intricate design.

After the mosque we are done being tourists, done exploring, done being hot and tired. So we head to the brand new W Hotel located right next to the sea.  Technically we’re not supposed to use the pool, but we waltz in, have an overpriced meal at the “Wet Deck” pool bar, and then just stay… No one kicks us out, so we change into bathing suits and spend the rest of the afternoon until sunset relaxing in 5-star hotel glory.

It’s the perfect end to a much-needed vacation and even after all our activities, there is so much more to explore.  We resolve to return one day.

 

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